Four Seasons Sunrooms runs two to three multi-day events per year with a family-friendly party atmosphere.
Four Seasons Sunrooms runs two to three multi-day events per year with a family-friendly party atmosphere.
Four Seasons events feature a large attraction --such as a slide or a maze -- to entertain the kids.
Four Seasons events feature a large attraction --such as a slide or a maze -- to entertain the kids.

A lead-hungry salesforce requires constant feeding, but the quality of those leads is at least as important as their number. Specialty contractors across the country are discovering that one of the most cost-effective ways to generate high-quality leads — that is, with a prospect who views your company favorably and is inclined to buy — is to host an open house at a satisfied customer's home.

It's All About Planning Whether your plan is to host 10 couples at a backyard barbecue to show off a glorious deck or to guide hundreds of potential customers through a series of well-crafted sun-rooms, the success of your venture, as measured by the number of leads that result, is all about planning. Make a plan with a budget and stick to it.

To many potential customers, someone else's home is not only more inviting than a company showroom, but as a setting for your product, more convincing. It's also —and this is no small matter —less intimidating. “The reason the consumer doesn't want to go to a showroom is because they think they're going to be sold,” says Brian Gottlieb, sales manager at Advantage Sunrooms in Greenbay, Wis. “They'd rather just meet their neighbors.” That's why appealing printed literature used to promote your open house should focus on fun and fellowship, not necessarily on buying a deck or a sunroom that day.

Incentives It may not take as much effort as you think to get some of your satisfied customers to open up their homes. A couple pleased with their new sunroom or deck will often be happy to have an excuse to show it off. While some companies such as Archadeck of Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C., frame their invitation to the homeowner to participate in an open house as an offer to have a free party (Archadeck salespeople tell clients, “You can have your first barbecue on us”), others, such as Home Comfort Now, a sunroom and window replacement company in East Hartford, Conn., actually offer the homeowner a small percentage of any sales completed as a result of that open house. Other companies use incentives such as gift certificates for local restaurants or stores. Some don't offer any incentives at all ahead of time but will follow up with a flower arrangement.

No matter what you choose to offer the homeowner as a thank-you for hosting, you are bound to have families that will grab any excuse to show off their homes. If you have many satisfied homeowners wanting to participate, consider grouping several nearby sites together and provide a map at each house so potential customers can go from one to the next and see multiple examples of your work.

When and Where You can schedule an open house at any time of year. (Obviously, though, a backyard barbecue on the deck is not a mid-winter event.) Spring is an especially opportune time for an open house because that's when many people are considering some kind of home improvement. But bear in mind that even in the dead of winter, people are often looking for something to do with their free time. Carl Tyler, vice president of Home Comfort Now, points out that his company has had to shovel paths through snow so that potential prospects could get to some of its sunroom open house events. But whatever time you choose to schedule it, keep your media focused on what a fun and enjoyable experience the open house will be, rather than marketing it as a buying opportunity.

How many open houses per year you choose to run may depend on how large an event you're planning. With a relatively small event and an average cost of just $250, Barry Klemons, president of Archadeck of Charlotte, says that he encourages the sales staff to avail themselves of all opportunities. “All five of my salesmen and my sales manager have an open invitation to set up open houses,” Klemons says. “They are allowed to host as many of them as they can book.” The owner also points out that even if no sale results immediately, social events on company-built decks are excellent public relations for Archadeck of Charlotte. (Note: If you're planning a large event, or one at multiple locations, you may want to limit yourself to two or three a year.)

Do's and Don'ts As you're organizing an event at a client's home, here are few things to bear in mind:

  • Yes, it's a party, but don't serve alcoholic beverages. Bottled water is a great choice because almost everyone drinks it. Expand the beverage selection, if you like, with a diet and a non-diet drink.
  • Finger foods — cheese, crackers, fruit and veggies with dips — are easy to serve and easy to clean up after. But don't regard food as an obligation. Some companies don't even bother with refreshments, seeing them as counterproductive. “The guests aren't there long enough,” says Tyler, vice president of Home Comfort Now. “If there are refreshments, guests stay too long and then the room's too crowded.”
  • Talk up the product. Although you do want guests to have a good time, the finished sunroom or deck must remain the star of the show. You would much rather have guests talking on the way out about your deck design, glass package, etc., than about how wonderful the crab dip was.
  • Promoting Your Open House

    Once you have your location selected and the planning done, how should you get people to come? To some extent you'll rely on the homeowner to invite friends, relatives, and especially neighbors. But your reach should extend beyond that as well. A multilayered media mix is the way to get additional bodies. Focus on a tight geographic area with door hangers and direct mail pieces. If your budget allows, run a newspaper ad or use inserts targeted to your selected ZIP code. Local radio coverage is another great way to boost attendance. Consider not just purchasing airtime but making your event available for a live remote location or offering someone from your company as an on-air guest for local talk radio shows.

    One of the most cost-effective ways to get neighbors to show up is a simple set of signs. A large sign with the name of your company and the words “Open House” in the frontyard, directional signs at nearby intersections, even parking one of your trucks or vans out front or in a common area of a gated community with a sign directing passersby to the front door, all will bring in people who didn't open your direct mail or look at your door hanger. “I have had people just passing through — because they were visiting someone or just happened to see the open house sign — who stopped in and ended up booking an appointment,” Tyler says. Keep the wording simple enough to use in a variety of locations and invest in top-quality signs that you can use again and again.